Hazy data about the health impact of e-cigarettes

Nurul Azliah Aripin
Lifestyle Lead
An exhibitor staff member uses an electronic cigarette at Beijing International Vapor Distribution Alliance Expo (VAPE CHINA EXPO) in Beijing, July 24, 2015. According to the organizer, the Expo, which is held in Beijing from July 23 to 25, attracts over 120 companies, including global high-end e-cigarette and e-liquid brands. China’s capital city unrolled ambitious new curbs on smoking in early June. Under the new rules, anyone in Beijing who violates the ban, which includes smoking in restaurants, hotels, schools and hospitals as well as in certain outdoor public places, must pay a 200 yuan ($32.25) fine. REUTERS/Jason Lee TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY

Despite the rising popularity of e-cigarettes and an increase in the number of related studies around the world, many users are uncertain about the potential health impact of vaping. 

Andrea Crossfield from Tobacco Free Futures, who spoke at a recent e-cigarette summit in London, said many tobacco smokers and e-cigarette users feel “confused”.

The issue isn’t so much as the availability of data but its reliability, Crossfield pointed out. The confusion arose mainly from conflicting reports due to researchers having difficulties in conducting their studies, said Crossfield, who was one of the 28 speakers at the annual summit held on 12 November at London’s Royal Society.

This has in turn clouded the perceptions of e-cigarette users. Crossfield has carried out a survey based on the experience of users and found out that many respondents are still unsure if e-cigarettes are useful in helping them to quit their habit.

As such, if more robust data is available, smoking cessation organisations like the UK’s Stop Smoking Service (SSS) can be more confident in making its recommendations about the use of e-cigarettes, Crossfield said.

The authorities in Singapore have highlighted the lack of evidence in the use of e-cigarettes as an aid to quit smoking tobacco products.

In a joint statement released previously, Singapore’s Ministry of Health, Health Sciences Authority and Health Promotion Board said, “We are aware that e-cigarettes have been marketed as a safer alternative to standard cigarettes or as an effective smoking cessation device. We remain cautious as there is no conclusive scientific evidence to demonstrate the effectiveness of e-cigarettes in helping smokers quit tobacco use.”

In Singapore, the import, distribution and sale of e-cigarettes is illegal and on 15 December, a ban on the use of e-cigarettes will take effect. An expert who spoke to Yahoo Singapore after the summit has called for e-cigarettes to be regulated instead of banning them in Singapore.

Availability of data still an issue

Associate Professor Charlotte Pissinger from Glostrup Hospital disagreed with Crossfield, saying the availability of data is still an issue. There are not enough e-cigarette products on the market to collate data for research, and knowledge about such products is still limited, she said. 

The involvement of tobacco and pharmaceutical companies in the commissioning of e-cigarette studies also creates a conflict of interest. Assoc Prof Pissinger said 26 per cent of such studies published thus far are funded by the tobacco industry, she said. This potentially creates a bias if the companies are involved in the manufacturing of e-cigarettes or related products.

Nonetheless, the researchers agreed that emerging data available appears to show that e-cigarettes are less harmful when compared to tobacco cigarettes, citing the breakthrough study carried out by Professor Marcus Munafo from Bristol University.

Unveiling his findings at the summit, Prof Munafo revealed that harmful substances, like formaldehyde, produced by an e-cigarette are much lesser than a regular tobacco cigarette.

“The level of exposure for constituents in tobacco smoke, that are detectable in electronic cigarette vapor, are consistently…lower than we see in conventional cigarettes. And therefore, by extrapolation, exposure due to active vaping is going to be much, much, less harmful than exposure to active smoking,” he said.

 

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